Photo: Susanne Pommer/Shutterstock

On Ghosts and Outsiders in Belfast

Student Work Narrative
by Michael Erving Aug 9, 2013
Michael is a student in the MatadorU Travel Writing program.

The silence that cloaked my brother’s and my walk from Belfast’s gleaming City Centre to its galvanized, concrete outskirts of heavy industry was slowly interrupted by the impending ripping and tearing of drums and pipes that burbled from the east side of the city.

It was protest season.

I’d arrived in Belfast two days earlier, expecting very little — maybe a little whiskey and some rest before I headed home to my summertime career of table wiping and ass kissing. I’d arrived as a coward, fleeing heartbreak and responsibility.

But Belfast, perhaps more than anything, was a city I didn’t expect. I never expected to be advised which bars to go to — not because of shoddy service, but because there are bars on two sides of a continuum: Protestant and Catholic. They say don’t mix your liquor; in Belfast, you don’t mix your hangouts.

I had only heard of the Troubles in vague allusions and whispers, but by the end of my first morning, after I’d visited the Ulster Museum, an infinitesimally small fraction of their weight had cloaked itself on me.

Our first night, my brother and I decided to be a little (too) bold and venture to Kelly’s Cellars, an old IRA hangout with the motif of a United Ireland that still runs deep today.

“We’re not English,” bellowed the woman at the left corner of our table. “We’re Irish.”

One drink into the night, we knew we’d better keep our mouths shut. I leaned back against the cool concrete wall, eyes wide, focused on the duo of women standing at the end of our table and speaking in swirling, dusty Irish. They had arrived when I’d slipped in to find the restroom (which turned out to be the lady’s room), and had soon overwhelmed our new companion, John, who was kind and drunk and downtrodden enough to buy my brother and me another round.

“Do you know how to speak Irish?” one asked, looking equal parts hopeful and accusatory at my brother and me.

“We’re from Alaska,” my brother replied, as I leaned forward and huffed out an “…uh.”

“Oh. Well then,” she said back, smiling. “Welcome.” She then looked at John. “What about you?”

He managed a few inebriated stutters and dropped his head in shame. The duo continued to rant in billowing Irish. John’s head remained low.

More than the bar advisories, though, I didn’t expect to find so much comfort in a city, especially one with a 400-year rift at its foundation. Belfast is a city of nooks and crannies, of shadows, ghosts, and heartbreak. It bares its scars — many of which still bleed — in the opposition of impossibility: that one day, there could be peace.

While I can feel the outsides of what makes Belfast, I can never carry their full weight.

On my second day in Belfast, I took a Black Taxi Tour, where we drove around with our cabby to both sides of town as he explained the Troubles from the Protestant and Catholic sides with the aid of murals painted on walls around the city. At our last stop, a greenbelt in a Protestant neighborhood, I was the first one back in the cab. I needed to sit.

“You been on the drink, boy?”

The cogs of my neck creaked my head slowly upward from staring out the window. “No…” I said, much more like a question.

His eyes squinted in fond disagreement.

“Well,” I said. “I had two Guinnesses last night.”

“Ah,” he said. “That’s dinner.”

It wasn’t the liquid dinner, though. Yet another immeasurably small fraction of the Troubles had wedged itself into me. Even peering through from the outside, I had began to feel a hint of their weight.

After the museum exhibits, the Black Taxi Tour, the Irish bantering, and all the stories we’d heard during and in between, my brother and I needed that walk to the Titanic Slip. We crossed the River Lagan and headed north on Queen’s Quay, becoming more and more alone with each step, until it seemed the sound of our footsteps, and perhaps the fleeting ghost of Belfast’s heavy industry, were our only companions.

That’s where everything started to sink in. Belfast carries its scars — some fond like the DeLorean and the Titanic, some horrific: the slaughter on both sides of the Troubles — with it to this day. For me, the foreigner, they showed me that, while I can feel the outsides of what makes Belfast, I can never carry their full weight. It’s a city open to all, and its greatness is plain to see, but it lies behind barbed wire, cinderblocks, and dusty, filamented windows.

As the distant cacophony of drums and pipes rolled through the air toward the slip, a cloud of smoke tore open the deepening blue of the Ulster sky. Some scars still bleed, but that is not Belfast. Not anymore.

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